A schematic of TerraPower's proposed Natrium nuclear power plant. (TerraPower)

The fate of TerraPower’s proposed Natrium nuclear power plant in Kemmerer may now depend on how quickly the federal government can “downblend” enough weapons-grade uranium, then help stand up a new U.S.-based commercial supply of high-assay, low-enriched uranium (HALEU) fuel.

Global events have interrupted fuel supplies. But falling short of the scheduled 2028 in-service date could jeopardize $2 billion in federal funding from the U.S. Department of Energy — half the estimated $4 billion cost of the liquid sodium-cooled nuclear power plant — and could scuttle the entire project, according to TerraPower. Blowing the now-tenuous deadline could also cast a shadow over TerraPower’s vision to deploy more Natrium power reactors in Wyoming and across the globe.

“A reactor that doesn’t have access to fuel is not a particularly useful piece of equipment,” TerraPower Director of External Affairs Jeff Navin said.

Fuel switch

Nine months after selecting Wyoming for its pilot Natrium reactor in 2021, TerraPower cut ties with the Russian state-owned Tenex — the only facility in the world with the capacity to supply commercial volumes of HALEU — after Russia invaded Ukraine. At least one other “advanced nuclear” power demonstration project may also hinge on how quickly the U.S. can accelerate a domestic HALEU fuel supply: X-energy in Washington state. 

TerraPower CEO Chris Levesque visits with Lincoln County residents Jan. 19, 2022 in Kemmerer. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Despite the logistic and scheduling challenges, TerraPower is moving forward as planned, according to the company. The nation’s electric power sector is moving swiftly to choose future power resources, and TerraPower sees a narrow window of opportunity to ensure advanced nuclear reactors play a major role, according to the company’s spokesperson.

“Utilities, states, countries and others are making decisions about what their [electric] generation is going to look like in the 2030s, and if we aren’t commercially available by then it’s going to hurt our ability to sell subsequent reactors,” Navin said.

Wyoming officials hailed the Natrium demonstration project in Kemmerer, and potentially more Natrium reactors in the state, as an economic bridge to help backfill gaps left by a declining coal-fired power industry. 

TerraPower selected Kemmerer and PacifiCorp’s nearby Naughton coal-fired power plant as the location for the Natrium reactor demonstration plant so it could re-purpose infrastructure that might otherwise be abandoned. The Naughton coal plant is scheduled to be decommissioned in 2028.

The Naughton coal-fired power plant, pictured Jan. 19, 2022, will be retired in 2028 when TerraPower commences operations for its proposed Natrium nuclear reactor power plant at the same location. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

TerraPower, co-founded and backed by Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates, plans to begin operations in 2028 then pass ownership of the nuclear power plant to PacifiCorp. However, some doubt the feasibility of the ambitious schedule. The Oregon Public Utility Commission in March declined to formally acknowledge PacifiCorp’s plans for Natrium to be a part of its future electrical generation portfolio.

Scramble for U.S. fuel supply

TerraPower and other developers hoping to build the next generation of nuclear power facilities in the U.S. were already working with Congress and the Department of Energy to expand the nation’s commercial HALEU supply chain before Russia’s war in Ukraine.

TerraPower Director of External Affairs Jeff Navin in Kemmerer Jan. 19, 2022. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Natrium, and other advanced nuclear reactor designs, require HALEU fuel, which is enriched to nearly 20% with uranium-235 compared to the 5% that makes up most of the fuel that powers the nation’s legacy reactors. Two facilities in the U.S. have HALEU fuel enrichment capabilities, but neither have the capacity to provide enough of the fuel for even one Natrium power plant, according to TerraPower.

Congress authorized the HALEU Availability Program in 2020 and eventually appropriated $45 million to “expedite” HALEU fuel-processing capacity in the U.S. The Inflation Reduction Act, which Wyoming’s entire congressional delegation voted against, added another $700 million toward the effort.

The federal support will go a long way to attract private investment and establish a reliable, commercial supply of HALEU in the U.S., perhaps in time to meet the 2028 in-service deadline in Kemmerer, Navin said. But the Natrium reactor will require an initial “core load” fuel delivery in 2025. TerraPower is now imploring federal officials to downblend enough weapons-grade uranium to meet that timeline.

“The only way we can meet the timeline that we laid out is to look for alternative [HALEU] sources,” Navin said. “And the most likely place that we can get those alternative sources is going to be governments — largely the U.S. government — that can make material available to be downblended.”

Downblending

Nuclear weapons-grade uranium is enriched to about 93% U-235. It can be blended with lower potency uranium to meet nuclear power reactor specifications. Combined, TerraPower’s Natrium and X-energy’s Xe-100 demonstration projects could require about 20 metric tons of HALEU derived from downblending, Navin estimated.

The Bill Gates-backed TerraPower plans to build the experimental Natrium liquid sodium-cooled nuclear reactor power plant just outside Kemmerer. (Google Earth image)

“To stay on schedule, we need about 5 metric tons delivered by the end of 2025,” Navin said. “That’s our first real deadline.”

Both the U.S. government and TerraPower are helping fund efforts to expand the HALEU fuel enrichment facility in Ohio owned by Centrus Energy Corp. The facility will begin producing just shy of 1 metric ton of HALEU annually in 2023. 

“We’re not going to find all of our supply for our first core load from one source. We’re going to have to cobble together multiple pieces in order to stay on the schedule,” Navin said, adding it’s unclear how much weapons-grade uranium can be processed into HALEU or how quickly.  “We’re all looking around at our options to see what materials available and how we can treat that material to maximize the amount of HALEU.”

Dustin Bleizeffer

Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 22 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. Fuel or no fuel, why is anyone considering a baseload water-evaporating power plant in the Colo River Basin in a state which could generate all it’s own power and export plenty with wind and a bit of solar? Instead of the DOE’s new C2N (Coal-To-Nuclear) program, C2S (Coal-To-Storage) should be promoted. Today, electricity storage is available at the cost of nuclear in the future. And those storage costs are going down. From batteries using iron-air, iron-flow, sodium, aluminum etc. to compressed or cooled/heated stored gases which utilize compressors and turbines and other power plant skills. These systems change variable renewable power to dispatchable power. Expensive nuclear power should be saved for land-short places like Connecticut, or energy-dense areas like the Gulf Coast.

  2. Does this have anything to do Hillary Clinton when she was Sec of State and sold-gave Russia the rights to our uranium?

  3. There was an additional $750 million of funding recently committed that was led by SK Inc. out of South Korea which should help solidify the completion. I’m not certain why the US Department of Energy, of which Centrus CEO Daniel Poneman was a former director, couldn’t extend the 2028 in service date. Although, maybe that would require an act of Congress and isn’t something the Department of Energy controls. Would like some more information on that.

  4. We are going to build a power plant that depends on RUSSIA for fuel? Maybe we should ask Europe how well that has worked out for them.

  5. A couple of points.

    1. Natrium’s use of the phrase “cobbled together” to describe sourcing enough fuel to put the plant into operation does not enhance public confidence in the success of the project.

    2. “De-enriching” weapons grade uranium to the level required for the plant is not the first problem Natrium faces. The main problem is that weapons grade uranium is destined for nuclear weapons. Especially given the current world situation and the threats posed by Russia and China, I think it highly unlikely the US government will accede to Natrium’s request and “de-enrich” already highly enriched uranium.

    Perhaps Dustin Bleizeffer can address this latter problem in a future article and explain how “blending” and “downgrading” work physically–particularly, how difficult is it?–as well as the government’s position on reducing its stockpile of weapons grade uranium just to get Natrium out of a jam.

    1. In 2019, the U.S. and Russia possessed a comparable number of nuclear warheads; together, these two nations possess more than 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons stockpile. As of 2020, the United States had a stockpile of 3,750 active and inactive nuclear warheads plus approximately 2,000 warheads retired and awaiting dismantlement. Of the stockpiled warheads, the U.S. stated in its March 2019 New START declaration that 1,365 were deployed on 656 ICBMs, SLBMs, and strategic bombers. It would seem that there are still enough nuclear weapons in our and Russia’s stockpiles to destroy the world several times over.